An agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture intends to propose barring the statements, “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” and “Uncured” on products that have been processed using any source of nitrates or nitrites—substances that preserve processed meats like bacon, hot dogs and deli corn beef.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) made the disclosure in a Dec. 10 letter to a representative of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which along with another consumer organization, requested the relief more than a year ago.
While “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” statements containing non-synthetic sources of nitrates or nitrites must contain a disclaimer that identifies the non-synthetic source, the disclaimer is confusing to consumers, according to a 2019 petition by CSPI and Consumer Reports. And the consumer groups argued labels like “Uncured” and “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” for meats processed from non-synthetic sources, such as celery powder, may mislead consumers into thinking the products are healthier than their competitors.
“Both synthetic and non-synthetic nitrates and nitrites may cause cancer, and product testing results released today by Consumer Reports show that processed meats made with celery powder and other non-synthetic sources of nitrates and nitrites can contain residues of these substances, just as do meats that use synthetic sources,” the consumer groups wrote in their Aug. 29, 2019 petition to FSIS.
The petition was met with opposition from the National Turkey Federation, which urged FSIS to keep its current regulations, noting the role of nitrates and nitrites in eliminating the risk of botulism in certain products.
“Decades of research have shown when nitrate and nitrite are carefully used in meat and poultry products, following prescribed levels regulated by USDA, these ingredients are completely safe and pose no human health risks whatsoever,” Lisa Wallenda Picard, NTF’s senior vice president of policy, trade and regulatory affairs, wrote in comments in response to the 2019 petition.
Picard also rejected the notion that the current labels at issue in the petition confuse consumers.
“For products that do not use synthetic nitrites and nitrates, they are permitted to make the claim of being uncured and when noting the absence of synthetic nitrites/nitrates in their product, they are required to provide a clear, easily understood statement that reads ‘Except those naturally occurring in sea salt and celery powder,’” she wrote. “Consumers have seen this labeling for many years, meaning a change would only serve to confuse consumers more.”
FSIS partly grants petition
In the recent letter to Sarah Sorscher, CSPI’s deputy director of regulatory affairs, an FSIS official, Rachel Edelstein, said her agency was partially granting the consumer groups’ petition. In addition to plans to bar the statements, "No Nitrate or Nitrite Added" and "Uncured" on products that have been processed using any source of nitrates or nitrites, FSIS also intends to approve non-synthetic sources of nitrates or nitrites as curing agents.
“However, rather than requiring disclosure statements about the use of nitrate or nitrites on labels of meat and poultry products, as requested in the petition, FSIS intends to propose to amend and clarify its meat and poultry labeling regulations to establish new definitions for ‘Cured’ and ‘Uncured,’” Edelstein wrote.
FSIS intends to explain the basis for the proposed changes in the proposed rule, “with a tentative publication date of May 2021.”
According to the consumer groups’ petition, U.S. adults, on average, consume about 21 pounds of processed meat annually, despite the advice of expert bodies—including the World Health Organization, American Cancer Society and American Heart Association—that recommend limiting consumption of processed meats.
“When consumers see a claim like ‘no nitrates added’ on meat, they think the product is healthier,” Sorscher said in a press release in response to FSIS’ letter to her. “A lot of us are surprised to find out that a healthy food like celery can be extensively processed to make the same compounds in the body as synthetic nitrites do when eaten. Removing the ‘no nitrates’ claims will help, but without a clear disclosure many consumers are not going to recognize that these meats are processed with nitrates and nitrites.”